- Spencer Greenberg
Human behavior makes more sense when you understand "Anchor Beliefs."
Updated: Dec 13, 2022
There's an important type of belief most of us have, which we call "Anchor Beliefs." These beliefs are, by definition, those beliefs we hold that are almost impossible to change. To the believer, an Anchor Belief doesn't feel like a mere belief - it feels like an undeniable truth. These beliefs are often too deeply rooted to change, and the cost of giving them up may be extremely high (e.g., questioning the belief might cause you to lose your family, friends, livelihood, or your understanding of what reality looks like).
Understanding the role that Anchor Beliefs play in human psychology - and identifying your own personal Anchor Beliefs - can help you make better sense of the world around you. Additionally, such an understanding can help you search for false Anchor Beliefs, those apparently unquestionable truths that make up the foundations of some people's worldviews, despite being wrong! Challenging your own false anchors is very difficult, but the consequences may be life-changing. This article provides an introduction to Anchor Beliefs, including an explanation of how they differ from other beliefs, what can make them so hard to change, and a list of common categories of Anchor Belief that can help you identify your own. We also give some proposals for how false Anchor Beliefs form, how you can identify these false beliefs in yourself, and what you can do to question them in a safe and productive way. If you care about understanding your own brain and the brains of other people, we think you may find this write-up valuable!
How do Anchor Beliefs work? Instead of shifting with evidence, they shape how we see evidence.
With many low-stakes, shallow-rooted beliefs (such as which turn to take to get to a restaurant), our commitment to the belief tends to adjust when we get counter-evidence (for example," this doesn't look familiar - I wonder if I took the wrong turn back there"). This behavior looks like an approximate form of Bayesian updating. Anchor Beliefs don’t work like this. Anchor Beliefs almost never change, yet we still have to make sense of new information that we come across (some of which may strongly contradict our Anchor Beliefs). Our solution is to warp the evidence that we receive such that we can fit it into our worldview AND keep our Anchor Belief intact at the same time. This is how Anchor Beliefs get their name: they are like huge, steel anchors securing boats to the ocean floor - only an enormously powerful current will be able to make them budge; any lesser current will simply swirl around the anchor. In this way, only incredibly powerful evidence can pose a threat to our Anchor Beliefs. And even then, our brains are highly adept at interpreting evidence so that our original Anchor Belief remains steadfast. Here’s a silly example to show how this might look in reality. Imagine that you HAVE to believe the walls of your house are blue. If you don't, then everyone you love will reject you (or something equally catastrophic). So it’s really important that you believe the walls of your house are blue. This means you must bend the evidence that you receive so that your perception is compatible with this belief. But, the walls of your house don’t look blue. How can you make sense of this? Maybe there is some strange-colored light in the house that makes the walls appear white. Or maybe there's something wrong with your vision. Or, maybe the walls are just an incredibly pale shade of blue that is very close to white. It’s not clear which explanation is correct, but it’s not worth wasting your time worrying about why blue walls would appear white. While you may think that you wouldn’t fall for a false Anchor Belief like this, being particularly smart or logical doesn’t necessarily help you challenge these kinds of beliefs. You’re more likely to come up with smarter and more logical reasons why your Anchor Belief must be correct (regardless of whether or not it is). If you search hard enough, there is almost always a way to reinterpret the evidence so that your Anchor Belief can remain steadfast.
Examples of common Anchor Beliefs
Some Anchor Beliefs are profound (say, about the origins of life), but many are prosaic (say, about the earth being spherical rather than flat). We all have large numbers of boring and trivial-sounding Anchor Beliefs such as:
1+1 = 2
humans have teeth
you live in [whatever country you believe you live in]
Consider for a moment how hard it would be for someone to convince you that you were wrong about any of these beliefs! And consider for a moment how INSANE things would be for your worldview if you did correctly come to believe that these beliefs were false. The ramifications would be so shocking that it is hard to comprehend the implications of being wrong. What makes the above Anchor Beliefs "trivial" is they have a really high probability of being true and virtually everyone concurs about them. Much more interesting and important to consider are Anchor Beliefs that may be false. False Anchor Beliefs are often acquired through social and cultural influences, though they can also come about in other ways (e.g., as defense mechanisms or by generalizing from a small number of traumatic experiences). Here are some common categories of Anchor Beliefs that could be false:
Things that almost everyone you know is taught
Certain religious beliefs learned in childhood
Perceptions of ourselves (e.g., as good/bad)
Views about one's community
Views about "enemy" groups
Inferences from viscerally shocking first-hand experiences (e.g., "the world's unsafe")
Beliefs your social group REQUIRES
Claims that the reputation of your most trusted authority figures are staked on
Beliefs that, if you stopped believing them, would leave you very confused about what to believe or what to do
The idea of an Anchor Belief is connected to (though not the same as) a number of other ideas, including:
sacred values (social psychology)
soldier vs. scout mindset (see Julia Galef's book on the topic)
shibboleths (the Bible)
conflict vs. mistake theory (see Slate Star Codex)
trapped priors (see Astral Codex Ten)
belief updating (Connection Theory)
core beliefs (CBT)
leaving lines of retreat (see LessWrong)
What does changing an Anchor Belief involve?
While Anchor Beliefs almost never change, on rare occasions we cut an anchor loose and our boat suddenly lurches forward into the unknown. Jettisoning an anchor doesn't necessarily take you where you want to go; there’s no guarantee that the new beliefs you adopt will be correct. It is scary, and it isn't always safe. It may even lead you to abandon other, even more steadfast anchors. But, abandoning an Anchor Belief is sometimes the only way to move forward. Consider your belief "the earth is round" (i.e., approximately an oblate spheroid, rather than flat like a disk). Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if you came to believe in a flat earth, and you traced out the consequences of that belief. What is NASA, then? And SpaceX? What is the field of astronomy, or geology, or cartography? Surely our government must know - so why are they keeping it from us? How long have they known this? How do they prevent the truth from getting out? Is the whole world involved in this conspiracy? Am I in danger if I publicly say it's a conspiracy? Why don't more people speak out about this? Have all of my friends and family also been misled? Is gravity real (and if so, how does it work on a disk)? What are the stars in the sky? It would be incredibly disorienting to work through all the implications that would follow from changing this once previously-unquestioned belief. Additionally, many of us have never checked whether the earth is actually round! Have you looked carefully at the arguments for this claim? And at the counterarguments to those arguments? Have you ever doubted (for even one minute of your entire adult life) that the earth is round? If we trust the evidence we receive from our eyes, many of us might assume that the earth is flat. So, how do we know that it is not? We learn this fact through our social world. (Unless, perhaps, you've lived by the ocean and had a habit of watching tall sailboats on the horizon.) Fortunately, the earth isn't flat. At least, our Anchor Beliefs say so - we've never personally run experiments to check, nor have we closely scrutinized the arguments for and against this claim. (If you wanted to, there are simple experiments that you can run - for example, you could attach a camera to a helium-filled high altitude weather balloon and see the round horizon from the vantage point of the camera.) Notice that most scientific facts you believe are not as fundamental as "the earth is round,” which is a fact that has many important implications for our belief systems. Other scientific facts have fewer implications and, since scientists make mistakes, we correct and update on these facts all the time. For example, people were interested to learn that dinosaurs probably had feathers, but few (if any) had reasons to resist this update in their beliefs because it challenged a core part of their worldview. In contrast, questioning a belief like “the earth is round” would throw most people's belief systems into disarray. Interestingly enough, if you already believed there was a cabal secretly ruling the world and that scientists were controlled by this cabal, then the earth being round may merely be an ordinary belief rather than an Anchor Belief. In that case, switching your view from believing in a round earth to believing in a flat earth is not likely to be perspective-shattering - it's easy to incorporate it into your worldview as just another thing the cabal has manipulated people to believe.
What happens when our anchor beliefs are wrong?
Anchor Beliefs aren't necessarily false. A lot of them are true. They just aren't necessarily true. So, it's important to distinguish between two types of Anchor Beliefs: (1) "False Anchors" and (2) Anchor Beliefs that happen to be true. False Anchors are obviously much more worrisome. However, they often aren't easy to spot. Remember, Anchor Beliefs feel to us (the believer) not like mere beliefs but like indisputable truths. However, it’s almost certain that we learned them from the people around us, or derived them from shoddy generalizations, and they may not be obvious truths at all (that doesn't mean they are false, just that they may not be indisputable like they seem). Our own Anchor Beliefs are like the dark matter of the self. They flow through us without detection, and they influence our actions. It's not that doubting these beliefs is impossible, but we tend to automatically dismiss scepticism towards our Anchor Beliefs (or entirely ignore evidence that contradicts them), so that we don’t have to face abandoning our worldview. False Anchor Beliefs can have negative consequences the way any false belief can: by causing your predictions to be out of sync with reality. What makes them worse than your average false belief is that they are hard to change, largely because so many other beliefs tend to rely on them. But remember that not all Anchor Beliefs are false (so it wouldn't make sense to give up a belief merely because it's an Anchor).
Why is it that some of our beliefs become Anchor Beliefs?
In the simplest examples (such as 1+1=2), a belief can become an Anchor Belief (i.e., almost impossible to change) because we have so much valid evidence for it being true that our prior probability of it being true is almost 100%. These are Anchor Beliefs that we're almost certainly right about - we'll call them Steel Anchors because they provide a sturdy foundation for an accurate worldview. But what about those Anchor Beliefs we may well be wrong about? Beliefs that are foundational to us but are not the result of witnessing tons of valid evidence? Let's call these Anchor Beliefs Tin Anchors. We are almost completely unable to change our mind about Tin Anchors, despite the fact that they don’t provide a valid foundation for an accurate worldview. Five reasons that we may form Tin Anchor Beliefs:
It could be that Tin Anchors are a consequence of too many beliefs being piled on top of one fundamental belief, such that the fundamental belief can’t be questioned without challenging the whole pile of beliefs.
Tin Anchors might also be explained by the fact that it is better to have some model of the world than to have no model at all; without any kind of model, you fail to make predictions about the world, which is essential for understanding it. When an Anchor Belief falls, we’re often temporarily thrown into a state of confusion about what to believe, which makes predictions difficult. Tin Anchors, like real anchors, keep us stabilized.
Another explanation behind Tin Anchors is that people might grow up in social communities with poor epistemic standards; if, for a long time, everyone you trust tells you that something is true despite not having good evidence (especially if this starts in childhood), these beliefs may become unmovable aspects of your worldview.
You might also find yourself forming Tin Anchors when you are in a situation where your brain predicts highly negative consequences from abandoning a belief. This makes changing our mind about that thing very painful and difficult. We will find all kinds of ways to cling to a belief if the alternative involves losing something that seems essential to our survival. Doubting one of these beliefs is like sticking your hand into a cage full of poisonous snakes: your mind wants to get away from the doubt as fast as possible (to avoid the severe predicted danger).
Tin Anchors sometimes occur when we generalize from shocking or traumatizing experiences. For instance, someone who is abused as a child might have an unshakable belief that they can't trust other people not to hurt them (of course, some people truly cannot be trusted, but their brain may have overgeneralized this).
Finding your Anchor Beliefs
It may be valuable to ask yourself: "What are my own Tin Anchors?" If you want to consider what Tin Anchor Beliefs you may have, here are some questions that it might be helpful to ask yourself:
"What beliefs did I pick up from those around me that I can't imagine not believing (yet many people in other social groups somehow manage not to believe)?"
"What viscerally shocking experience might I have overgeneralized from that explains my worldview now?"
"What might other people from another community claim my Anchor Beliefs are?"
These are pretty safe queries, as you're very unlikely to stop believing your Tin Anchor Beliefs. And identifying one of your beliefs as a Tin Anchor doesn't make it change, though it might be useful to know where your Anchors lie. Of course, it might be valuable (though costly) to change an Anchor Belief that you hold, if you want to. This might be something worth considering.
So, how do you challenge your Anchor Beliefs?
Suppose you think that you've found one of your own Tin Anchors that you think has important implications for your life and you actually want to examine whether it’s true. One strategy that may help is to try and clearly imagine the world where this Tin Anchor Belief turns out to be false. What is that world like? Can you deal with and accept that world? How would believing that you live in that world change your behavior and relationships? Can you accept those changes? If you DO live in that world (where your Anchor Belief is false), would you want to believe you live in it, or would you rather pretend that your Anchor Belief isn’t false? If the answer is truly "yes" - you really would want to know if the belief is false, and you're prepared to face the ramifications and consequences of losing that belief - then now you can truly start to put the belief to the test. Consider the strongest arguments on each side by, for instance, using our Belief Challenger program. Seek out evidence that might disconfirm the belief. Ask people that disagree with this belief why they disagree with it. Surround yourself with some people who don't have that Anchor Belief for a little while. See if the belief survives these tests.
How can you work around someone else's false Anchor Beliefs?
Suppose you know someone who you think has a harmful, false belief. If your goal is to help them understand the world accurately, it is simplest to first identify the relevant Anchor Belief that this false belief relies on and assume that it cannot be changed. (Changing someone else’s foundational Anchor Belief will require an IMMENSE current or, in other words, powerful evidence that is impossible to ignore or misinterpret.) Consider what you'd say to this person to nudge them towards truth GIVEN their Anchor Beliefs. Too often, we try to change other people’s minds by attempting to shift 20-ton anchors. Instead, it is more effective to identify those Anchor Beliefs, and then act as best you can under the assumption that you will almost certainly not be able to change them. Is it bad to have Tin Anchors? Some of these Anchor Beliefs are bad, but others are fine. In any event, it seems like we may not have a choice - Anchor Beliefs might be part of the construction of human minds. Once we acknowledge that people have these almost entirely unquestionable beliefs, the world - and how people act in it - begins to make much more sense. There's a reason so many boats are just stuck where they are (no matter how much paddling appears to be happening on the surface).
We also have a full podcast episode about Liberalism and Conservatism that you may like:
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